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The concept of collective memory can be used to provide psychosocial support to victims of torture, as well as reminding society of past atrocities. Professor Carlos Beristain, who is a physician, specialist in health education and doctor in psychology, believes collective memory can help survivors make sense of the trauma they have experienced.
“The memory of what happened hurts, because it brings torture victims’ experience into the present day. Yet it also demands that the victim regain their dignity. The key is the psychosocial support. For victims of torture and other human rights violations, memory can help create a social framework for recognising their experiences, which they often have to keep inside or hide in silence. Memory also contributes to insuring the same trauma never happens again.”
This is how Professor Beristain explains the power of victims’ memory when it comes to healing. Having worked with victims since 1988, he has seen first-hand how collective memory can help torture victims understand their experiences better.
Beristain started out by focusing on the diagnosis of injuries caused by torture and the analysis of medical reports of cases in the Basque Country and in other countries. “In 1989 I went to El Salvador to train lawyers, doctors, psychologists and social workers on the documentation of cases, medical aspects of psychosocial care for victims and strengthening the community against the risk of arrest and torture, since this was a systematic practice during the war,” he explains.
He knows only too well the consequences of torture and how it can affect entire communities. “In 1990 I went to Guatemala for the first time because other human rights organisations were interested in my work, even though there were no survivors in Guatemala because few political prisoners survived. Providing support to the relatives of disappeared persons and those killed in the massacres were the most important issues at the time. In Guatemala we learned about other forms of torture, such as acts of torture against the general public during the massacres and survivors who witnessed these acts, as well as the enormous impact of terror on Mayan communities.”
These experiences have reinforced his believe in the importance of collective memory. “It can especially help in expressing their experiences in a positive sense. Because it is not only the pain and what happened that is important, it is also their resistance to it and their fighting spirit.
“Many victims see their experiences reflected in the more global work of collective memory, reaffirming themselves as a person and letting go of the negative image they have of themselves that creates a stigma where they or others feel they deserved to be tortured.”
Beristain was part of the Interdisciplinary Group created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2015 that investigated the case of the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa in Guerrero. A high profile case that attracted press attention from across the globe. He explains that, “Our work consisted of accompanying the victims, investigating the case and what happened the students, restoring a dialogue with the state and supporting them in analysing the reports and allegations about torture.”
Professor Beristain has been working with the relatives of disappeared persons in Mexico for several years. “Some of them have survived kidnapping, and all of them suffered from the impact of the torture of forced disappearances and the lack of a state response to these atrocities. During workshops we ran we made space to share, to cry and to try to understand what had happened, despite the pain of many participants,” he says.
“Through our work and support, many relatives have gone on to lead organisations, to have direct contact with the authorities, to review records or to take action, even in situations of repression or intimidation. The psychosocial support my colleagues and I have provided has played an important role in the development of these processes and organisations.”
Professor Beristain will speak about survivor participation in research and treatment planning at the upcoming IRCT International Scientific Symposium, which takes place in Mexico from 4 to 7 December. It is closely connected with collective memory and a topic that he feels strongly about. “Survivors should be involved from the start. Firstly, because torture victims are in a process of regaining the control of their lives on their own terms and their ability to make decisions and take an active role is fundamental. Secondly, because of their experiences. Although their memories might be fragmented or limited, they can provide the group with a more positive perspective and act as an example for others,” he says.
During a workshop with women survivors in Columbia, one of the survivors, who is also the leader of a women’s organisation, said, “It’s the first time in ten years that I stopped feeling guilty.” This was as a result of speaking with others in the group. We know that guilt can fill the space where the person tries to make sense of what happened and this guilt has a way of trying to take control of the situation, as well as having an enormous psychological impact on the person.”
While much progress is being made in the sector, Professor Beristain says more is needed to, “Help survivors face the consequences of their experiences, while reinforcing social ties and strengthening the social fabric of communities. In other words, it is not only a question of reducing suffering, but also contributing to the fight by tackling its causes. It is important to support victims and strengthen their psychological state and ability to integrate in society, as well as helping them to take their case to court and strengthen their ties with other victims so they can play an active role and not be the passive victim.”
In our Fighting Torture series, we speak with people from around the world and from a number of professions who work with and support survivors of torture. What does their work mean to them and what are the biggest challenges they see in the anti-torture and rehabilitation movement?
Jens Modvig was unanimously elected as the Chair of the UN Committee against Torture in April 2016. He has worked in the torture rehabilitation sector for more than 20 years, from his time as a medical doctor to his current role as Director of the Health Department at DIGNITY, the Danish Institute Against Torture. We find out what challenges he has faced in his new role and how the Committee relies on having close relationships with civil society.
Q: How long have you worked in the field of torture rehabilitation and human rights?
I started working for RCT (Rehabilitation and Research Centre) /IRCT (International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims) – RCT is now DIGNITY – in 1994 so it has been more than 20 years. It has been a great privilege for me to use my professional background in such an important field. I do not think that many people are as blessed as I am to have such a meaningful occupation.
Q: Can you describe a typical day in the office/field for you?
When I am in DIGNITY, I mainly work with matters related to medical knowledge of torture. This could be drafting or reviewing research papers or manuals for health professionals. When I am in Geneva for sessions of the Committee against Torture, we are in session all day, considering reports from state parties through an interactive dialogue with a delegation from the country in question.
These sessions are public and webcasted. During this session, which unfortunately prevents me from attending the IRCT Scientific Symposium in Mexico, we consider reports from Sri Lanka, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Monaco, Ecuador, Namibia, Finland and Cabo Verde. In between sessions I have meetings, internal or with ambassadors from countries being considered, or I prepare for the next day.
In the field, I most often engage in training or awareness sessions to build capacity or raise awareness of the problem of torture and the need to prevent torture and rehabilitate victims.
Q: Can you give us an example of how you have seen your work make a difference?
In a recent meeting in Ghana organised by the Convention against Torture initiative, initiated by the governments of Chile, Denmark, Indonesia, Ghana and Morocco, representatives of Kenya and Uganda explained that they had engaged in large legislative processes to have anti-torture legislation in place, and in both instances, this was prompted by recommendations by the Committee against Torture after consideration of these two countries.
Another example is when NGOs have assisted the Committee with a country review, for instance, by submitting a shadow report or having a private meeting with the Committee ahead of the public meeting, in some cases the NGOs fear reprisals once the session is completed. In such cases, I may issue a public warning to the state party delegation that such measures are unacceptable and will be reacted to immediately. In these cases I believe that the NGOs are just a tiny bit more secure, just as they often solicit and appreciate such messages from the Committee.
Q: How has this work changed since you started?
I think the anti-torture movement in general has been much better organised, and the professional level of fighting torture has increased considerably.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the torture rehabilitation sector?
The biggest challenge is to get state parties to the Convention against Torture to assume their responsibilities laid down in article 14 of the Convention, i.e. the right to rehabilitation. If they did, we would not have the symptomatic problem of funding difficulties for the rehabilitation centres, and the sector would thrive, to the benefit of the victims.
In this regard, the IRCT Scientific Symposium a unique opportunity for the movement to take stock of its scientific achievements. In my opinion, scientific achievements are of great importance to the movement and give strength and legitimacy to the anti-torture movement as a whole, but are also a way of creating respect and maybe even protection for the individual NGOs that deal with torture victims.
In addition, it is clear that the right to rehabilitation is not enforceable in all state parties to the Convention against Torture and a lot needs to be done in this respect. The Committee is certainly working on this during its dialogue with state parties, but I believe that state representatives who will participate in the Symposium will obtain a much deeper understanding of why rehabilitation is needed and necessary and why states should ensure that the right to rehabilitation is available to all victims of torture.
How important is the CAT’s relationship with civil society organisations?
The Committee against Torture relies on close collaboration with civil society, particularly in the field of alternative reporting. If we only had the official government reports available when carrying out our country reviews, we could easily be left with an incomplete or even wrong picture. Civil society organisations like IRCT members often provide crucial information to the Committee, often based on statistics derived from their clinical work with survivors of torture; and the IRCT plays a crucial role in supporting its members and facilitating their dialogue with the Committee.
Q: What are your hopes for the future?
Obviously I hope that the anti-torture movement, both the civil society based and the intergovernmental work gains much more strength and awareness so that we in fact are able to effectively fight torture.
Q: According to various surveys, many people do not think torture is such a big problem; that it is a thing of the past; or some even think that it is necessary. What would you say to them?
Try to imagine yourself in a situation where you were unjustly accused of terrorism. What would be important to you?
Across the globe there are many human rights defenders and organisations whose work has made an enormous difference to the fight against torture – yet we know very little about them and what they do. One such group is the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG), which consists of 35 of the world’s most eminent experts in the documentation and investigation of torture. Coming from 18 different countries, these experts have varied backgrounds ranging from forensic pathologists to clinical psychologists.
The objective of the IFEG is to use its members’ expertise as doctors, psychologist and psychiatrists to document and investigate torture and to secure justice for victims. As part of their work they go on documentation missions around the world, conducting physical and psychological evaluations of alleged torture victims. They also train health and legal professionals in how to document torture and help raise awareness among the public.
Dastan Salehi from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) recently spent a week with IFEG members Dr Maximo Alberto Duque Piedrahita and Dr Ana Deutsch on a mission in the Bolivian capital of La Paz. We asked Dastan to document the mission and as his pictures show, the work of the IFEG can take many different forms.
Dr Duque (left) and Dr Deutsch (right) spent one week in La Paz, Bolivia on a documentation mission, conducting physical and psychological evaluation on three people who allege they were subjected to torture in Bolivia.
Documentation missions are the bread and butter of the IFEG’s work. In a nutshell, they feature two IFEG experts (one medical doctor and one psychologist or psychiatrist) who travel to a particular country to conduct examinations on people who allege they have been tortured. This examination results in what is known as a ‘medico-legal report’, which seeks to medically and psychologically assess the correlation of the physical and psychological scars with the allegations of torture.
While in La Paz, the two experts delivered a workshop on the Istanbul Protocol, the key international instrument on the investigation and documentation of torture and ill-treatment. The workshop, which was hosted by local rehabilitation centre Instituto de Terapia y Investigacion (ITEI), looked at ways to improve effective documentation of torture and the obligations of health professionals to document and report cases of torture independently.
During the mission, the IFEG experts spent time with ITEI to share experiences and best practices and to discuss how they can best work together in the future to document torture.
The IFEG’s visit caught the attention of several local media outlets, which were all keen to interview them. In this one, Dr Duque appears alongside Andres Gautier, Lead Psychologist at ITEI, on the television programme Claroscuro con Angel Careaga to discuss the situation of torture in Bolivia and Latin America.
Dr Duque also met with journalists from Agencia de Noticias Fides Bolivia and was interviewed on Radio PanAmericana Bolivia to share his views on the situation in Bolivia, as well as to discuss the importance of the Istanbul Protocol.
Going on mission with the IFEG experts, Dastan Salehi quickly realised just how important their work is to the anti-torture movement and torture victims around the world.
“It was really inspiring to see Ana and Maximo at work. The way they spoke to and interacted with the victims and their families was just phenomenal. They didn’t treat them as just a case. They built rapport, shared and collaborated with them as people, and that was quite special.”
Each IFEG mission leaves behind a legacy of learning and inspiration, despite the difficult nature of the expert’s work; this was no different in La Paz.
A big thank you to Dastan for sharing his pictures with us. To find out more about the work of the IFEG click here.
No two torture survivors are the same, and across the globe rehabilitation centres explore what kind of rehabilitation method works best to help each individual survivor rebuild their life. We look at some of the most creative approaches used around the world.
1. Football Activity Group
Teamwork, exercise and fun. Three key elements of IRCT member in the UK Freedom from Torture’s Football Activity Group. The group is a joint project between the rehabilitation centre and English football club Arsenal, which uses football as a therapeutic tool.
Torture survivors take part in weekly football training sessions at the Hub – a training pitch right next to Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. The group complements individual therapy and counseling and, since it began in 2012, has grown from six to 25 members.
“The group is supportive of one another – there are partnerships, friendships, team work and togetherness. Football helps in multiple ways, says Freedom from Torture’s group therapist Selcuk Berilgen says. “It’s great exercise and the confidence in the body, for torture survivors, positively affects the mind too.”
2. Exploring and rebuilding through the Healing Club
At SURVIVORS, San Diego, the centre has been running a Healing Club for ten years, inspired by fellow IRCT member the Program for Torture Victims of Los Angeles. Many of SURVIVOR’S clients feel isolated, do not speak English and are new to the city. That is where the Healing Club comes in.
Niki Kalmus, SURVIVORS’ Community Relations Manager explains that, “The rationale behind the Healing Club is that many of our clients come from collective societies, so it’s a great fit culturally. People can learn from one another on so many levels. Those that have been at SURVIVORS for less time can see clients who have been there longer and feel hopeful that they too can continue to heal and rebuild their lives.”
Through the Healing Club, torture victims have gone on walking tours, visited a meditation garden, gone to the beach, had tea parties and seen musicals. “We take advantage of the weather and tend to do outdoor adventures as the healing power of nature is extremely powerful. The Healing Club is rather unconventional when it comes to typical mental health options in the United States,” says Niki.
“We’ve taken therapeutic concepts from other countries and cultures and brought them here to San Diego, and we’ve seen a huge success. It’s also a bridge to other services for some clients. They start out only going to the Healing Club and then when they see our availability, accessibility, and the values we put into action around trust building, confidentiality, interpreters, etc. they gradually become more open to exploring individual therapy or psychiatry.”
3. Psychosocial rehabilitation at the theatre
The use of dance and music has long been recognised as a powerful way for people from all walks of life to express themselves. Italian IRCT member, Hospitality and Care for Victims of Torture harnesses this power in its psychosocial rehabilitation theatre workshops.
Together with the Italian Council for Refugees, the centre gives refugees the chance to work with theatre professionals to develop performances around topics such as birth, violence and torture in conflict zones. The group then perform for the public every 26 June, which is the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, attracting audiences of up to 400 people.
These workshops and performances give torture survivors a platform to deal with their trauma in a more creative way. All while raising awareness among the public.
4. Involving the entire community through testimonial therapy
Supporting torture survivors in telling their stories has long been recognised as an important element of rehabilitation. In India, among other countries, rehabilitation providers have been working with Testimonial Therapy, a human rights-based psychosocial intervention, which can be used by non-professional counselors and focuses on involving the entire community.
The survivors tell their story, which is recorded and jointly edited by a counselor, a note taker and the survivors themselves. The story is then presented to the survivors in a testimony ceremony, where they are honoured in front of their community.
The ceremony in the community marks the turning point in the healing process, where the person makes the transition from the role of torture victim, to an empowered and recognised survivor of torture. If the survivors feel comfortable with it, their story will then be used as part of awareness-raising and advocacy activities.
“Before testimony [therapy] victims feel lonely and they do not tell their pain to anybody… But after testimony therapy I [put] outside my pain and share my story to encourage others. It is [a] very good process to give honour in front of [the] community and I feel that I have [got] my own dignity,” said one participant.
5. Using the circus to reconnect with your body
“For me it was like being with my sisters again, there were women laughing, having fun, exercising. We shared lunch and talked about our countries and background.”
Jaw dropping stunts and eye-catching acts are what makes a circus great, but for torture survivor Katie, circus performance has also been a method of rehabilitation. The ‘Body Movement Reconnect’ programme is a joint initiative between Australian IRCT member Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Services (STTARS) and the group Uniting Care Wesley Bowden.
Trainers from the South Australian Circus Company work with female survivors of torture body awareness to develop social connections, improve fitness and build self-esteem to reduce the impact of chronic pain.
The group participates in a range of circus activities accompanied by therapy and group counseling for six months. After her circus training Katie felt reinvented, “It always felt like a safe space and I knew the women there understood me and I understood them. I am a strong Afghani woman, and that makes me feel proud.”
In our Fighting Torture series, we speak with people from a number of professions who work with and support survivors of torture. What does their work mean to them and what are the biggest challenges they see in the anti-torture and rehabilitation movement?
In the latest installment, we speak with Flutra Gorana, the Executive Manager at Centre Nassim, a project of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH), which offers rehabilitation to victims of torture through multi-disciplinary professional support and case management. She speaks about how she first volunteered for an agency for refugees in 1999 and has been involved in human rights work ever since, the situation for torture survivors in Lebanon and how every single person who stands in solidarity with survivors can make a difference.
Q: How long have you worked in torture rehabilitation and human rights?
In 1999 I started to volunteer for a refugee resettlement agency. Ever since I have been working with NGOs. Also with victims of human trafficking, 100% of whom are survivors of torture. Prior to starting to work at CLDH – Centre Nassim in November 2015, I worked with disadvantaged youth in New York. It was a programme for young people from low socio economic neighbourhoods who didn’t finish high school. The idea was for them to graduate from high school and get a good job, not just a minimum wage job but a profession.
Q: How did you end up doing this work?
In 1999 it was a time when Kosovan refugees were coming into the US. The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended and the war in Kosovo was going on. Because I speak both languages I was translating in a camp in the US receiving refugees. It’s a job where you go home and feel fulfilled. You can’t save everyone but can see the impact you have on each and every person.
Q: Can you give us an example of how you have seen your work make a difference?
One time I remember is when a family from Kosovo came to New York. I was helping with everything the agency provided. The old man in the family got up and gave me a big hug and said, “I don’t know where we would be without you”.
Q: Tell us about the situation for torture survivors where you are/area you’re involved with or your home country?
In Lebanon there is very little support for torture victims. There are only three agencies in the whole country. Now there are 1.3 million Syrian refugees in the country and more coming. The need is great and the resources and capacity don’t match the demand. 70% of our clientele are Syrian.
Q: What is a typical day in the office/field for you?
We have a very dynamic office. The staff are great. We have two psychologists, one social worker, an assistant, a doctor, a lawyer and a co-ordinator. We also have five lawyers that work mostly outside the office in prisons and detention centres. On the days when the psychologists and doctor are in we all need to be available because we know we will have an influx of clients. Sometimes it can be as simple as giving them extra clothes or food kits. I also do a lot of negotiation with UNHCR and other organisations to try and get refugees resettled. Then also a lot of report writing, financial management and staff management. It’s a mix of everything.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the torture rehabilitation sector?
In Lebanon it is not recognised that torture exists or at least the government do not make any comments about it. This means there is no government support, so all the funding comes from outside organisations and foundations. This is the biggest challenge. The stigma around torture is also a challenge. Beneficiaries want to come to the centre when no one is around. We try to explain to them that it is not only torture victims who use our services and they don’t need to be ashamed. It’s also a challenge to ensure staff are safe.
Q: According to various surveys, many people do not think torture is such a big problem; that it is a thing of the past; or some even think that it is necessary. What would you say to them?
Torture is very much happening in many countries. What people need to understand, especially those who say it is needed, is that if a person is being tortured they will say anything to make it stop. It is not an effective way to interrogate someone. It humiliates the victims, destroys their life, their family’s life and society in general.
Q: And finally, many of us do care about torture survivors and victims. How can we support the anti-torture/torture rehabilitation movement?
By voicing their opinion, in any discussion, even just around the kitchen table. By educating their family and friends that torture is wrong. Starting small can lead to bigger things. If they have the power to write to government officials and legislators they can do so. They can also support organisations that do this work, not only financially, sometimes moral support can mean more.
There is no doubt that 2016 will be another significant year for the global torture rehabilitation movement, presenting both challenges and opportunities for the sector. In this blog, we look at what 2016 has in store for us, listing some of the key highlights and challenges coming up.
Violence in connection with upcoming elections
From Samoa to Bolivia, millions of people around the world will be participating in elections this year. While most elections are expected to be peaceful, countries like Uganda and Haiti have both seen an increase in violence and human rights violations in connection with their upcoming elections. In Haiti the violence intensified after widespread allegations of fraud, and the country’s presidential runoff was eventually cancelled. In Uganda, the country’s former prime minister and current presidential candidate, Amama Mbabazi, recently accused President Yoweri Museveni of using murder, torture and violence to curtail growing support for the opposition.
Looking elsewhere, Gambia, which has a long record of torture and other human rights violations, is also due for an election in 2016, and in the DRC and Somalia there are concerns that upcoming elections could trigger violence and unrest.
The pre-election violence is a clear reminder of the need to take precautionary measures and to be ready to respond with investigation and rehabilitation.
An exhibition: Torture – The International Outlaw
Marking last year’s Human Rights Day, a group of anti-torture organisations launched an exhibition called ‘Torture – The International Outlaw’ at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. The exhibition showcases the history and the hope found in the fight against torture and gives visitors a chance to learn about torture survivors’ stories. Later this year, Europeans will also get a chance to visit the exhibition when it opens in Brussels and then goes on the road to be displayed at several key events in 2016.
10 years of OPCAT
In June this year it will be 10 years since the United Nations’ Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – also known as OPCAT – entered into force.
The OPCAT is one of the most important international legal instruments in the protection and prevention of torture around the world. Under the OPCAT, the United Nations’ Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) obtains unrestricted access to places around the world where persons may be deprived of their liberty, their installations and facilities and to all relevant information.
26 June is the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. On this date, anti-torture organisations and human rights activists around the world organise campaigns, activities and other events in support of torture survivors and in commemoration of victims.
Every year, there are a wide array of events, and this year is no exception. For example, the IRCT and its members will be organising lots of activities as part of their global 26 June campaign. The best way to stay up to date with upcoming events is to follow the IRCT on Facebook and Twitter.
Olympics: Torture and ill treatment of detainees in Brazil
With only six months to go until the opening ceremony in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil has bigger things to worry about than getting ready for the 2016 Olympics. As Human Rights watch noted in its latest World Report, “chronic human rights problems plague Brazil, including unlawful police killings, prison overcrowding, and torture and ill-treatment of detainees.”
Following a visit in October 2015 by the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT), the head of the delegation and Secretary-General of the IRCT Víctor Madrigal-Borloz noted that while Brazil had made efforts to tackle the problems, many of the issues the SPT highlighted during its visit in 2011 had still not been addressed.
The preparations for the Olympics have also been linked to widespread human rights abuses. Unfortunately, it is not the first time that Brazil’s human rights record has been criticised in connection with a global sports event. According to the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism, the country’s state security forces injured or detained 178 journalists who covered demonstrations in various parts of the country in the year leading up to the 2014 Football World Cup.
Electing a new Special Rapporteur on Torture
Also in 2016, the UN Human Rights Council will be electing a new Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SRT). As only the sixth person to take on this important role, the new SRT will replace Argentinian human rights lawyer and professor, Juan Méndez who has been the SRT since 2010. The election will take place in September as part of the UN Human Rights Council’s September session.
The new SRT will be taking office at a time when the anti-torture movement is increasingly focused on putting victims at the centre of its work.
Delivering on the Right to Rehabilitation through science
The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) and Mexican rehabilitation centre Colectivo Contra la Tortura (CCTI) are hosting a global interdisciplinary scientific symposium from 5 to 7 December in Mexico City.
The Symposium, which is the tenth of its kind, is expected to be a unique and exciting opportunity for the global torture rehabilitation sector to come together to exchange experiences and research on developments in the rehabilitation of survivors of torture. The event will bring together medical professionals, researchers and experts from within the torture rehabilitation sector, as well as those working in closely related sectors, such as public mental health, violence against women and protecting persons with disabilities.
To find out more go to: www.irctsymposium2016.irct.org
“I am tired of it, tired of my body. Tired of my soul. I can only see that it’s getting more and more sick as time goes by.”
Much research has been done on the link between physical exercise and mental health. So far, focus has largely been on how an active lifestyle may help alleviate symptoms such as depression and chronic pain, but a group of Danish researchers have gone in a different direction, introducing traumatised refugees to the relatively unknown Basic Body Awareness Therapy.
Basic Body Awareness Therapy (BBAT) is a form of physiotherapy that is often used for psychiatric patients in Scandinavian countries. Stemming from different movement systems of Western and Eastern traditions, it focuses on movements related to posture, coordination, free breathing and awareness.
Over a period of 14 weeks, four physiotherapists at the Competence Centre for Transcultural Psychiatry in Copenhagen took a group of traumatised refugees from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon through weekly 90-minute BBAT group sessions.
A mainly nonverbal therapeutic process supported by short talks, BBAT is believed to strengthen the patients’ confidence in their own resources. Echoing this, the Danish sessions led to a growing self-confidence among the participants, with some even beginning to feel a sense of control over their own bodies.
“I have learnt how to concentrate myself away from pain. It starts by lying and thinking about
the skin and about something nice. Then everything goes away,” explained one of the participants.
“After all the traumas my body has been through, I feel good that it is still working,” said another.
Traumatised refugees are likely to suffer from (symptoms related to) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As a consequence, their interest in participating in activities they once enjoyed has diminished.
For some participants, being part of a group not only motivated them to go to the sessions, but also helped them through the exercises.
“In my case, it’s better to be in a group. When we start doing the exercises, I am focusing on how the others are doing them and my attention is there. I don’t think about my pain during that moment. The thought of pain is distracted by their presence, because they are there.”
Others, who were initially cautious of group sessions, were positively surprised by the unity and solidarity that came from being part of a group.
“In the beginning we were wary of each other, because we didn’t know each other.
Afterwards, when we got to know each other, it got better. I was scared of receiving therapy in
a group, but I think it was a good experience.”
So what can we take away from the Danish study?
After the 14 weeks, the majority of participants expressed satisfaction with BBAT. Some felt happier while others had experienced increased body awareness helping them to reduce or cope with the pain.
“The physiotherapy that we are used to normally involves you going to a physiotherapist to get a massage. And this is something totally different, that you should learn to know your body and react according to the problems you have.”
In terms of participants, the study was small, but what it lacked in numbers it made up for in depth, enabling participants to express any progress or regress they experienced during the BBAT sessions. The encouraging results of the qualitative study suggest the need for further research on BBAT and traumatised refugees.
A bigger study could give us the certainty. But for now, it seems that BBAT could be a key component in the treatment of traumatised refugees.
To read the latest issue of Torture Journal click here.
The use of torture is a contentious topic that has caused a myriad of heated arguments between those who believe the practice can be justified and those who say that it is a serious human rights violation that can never be tolerated. As a result, many myths and misconceptions have sprung up about torture, poisoning the debate.
In this blog we debunk 7 of the most common myths about torture.
Torture works and there are no better alternatives
In the wake of last year’s release of the CIA torture report, there has been an ongoing and toxic debate over the use of torture. Does it work? Is it really that bad? The defenders of torture argue that had it not been for the CIA’s torture program, cities like London would have been hit by terrorist attacks. They also claim that at times, torture is a necessary evil to keep us all safe.
These are just some of many misconceptions about torture. Not only do we now know that what took place at Guantanamo Bay actually led to false confessions and stories, history also tells us that torture is not an effective means of acquiring intelligence.
Torture always leaves visible scars and is easy to document
That is not always the case. Unlike the infamous torture methods used in the Middle Ages, states today are trying very hard to hide their crimes. Thus, many torture methods leave little or no physical marks. Some examples are mock executions, temperature manipulation, sensory torture (noise and light), waterboarding (mock drowning), threats of harm to friends or family, and sleep deprivation. Increasingly sophisticated methods are harder to document, and the effects they produce more likely to be invisible, thus contributing to impunity.
Torture is anything awful done to a person
While the CIA ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ are torture, getting up early in the morning for work and doing the dishes is not. The UN Convention against Torture includes a widely accepted definition of torture. Torture always involves:
- severe pain or suffering, physical or mental
- extraction of information or a confession, punishment, intimidation or coercion, or discrimination of any kind
- a public official or person in an official capacity (the perpetrator)
Torture is a thing of the past
Most people connect torture to the Middle Ages and some have visited medieval torture museums to learn about this ancient practice. Back then, torture was considered a legitimate way to extract confessions, punish offenders, and perform executions. It turns out, torture is not history. The IRCT network of torture rehabilitation clinics treated more than 100,000 victims of torture according to its last census. Amnesty recently reported that more than 140 countries around the world still use torture. And in many countries, police officers are ignorant about the fact that torture constitutes a crime under international law and humane alternatives to torture exist.
Torture is only used in war, in a few countries
There are constantly new cases of torture happening away from armed conflicts and war. As an example, police brutality or torture in detention are both serious problems in a great majority of countries. In fact, Amnesty International has in the past five years reported torture and abuse in more than 140 countries.
Torture victims are either criminals or terrorists
Anyone can be a victim of torture – children as well as adults, young as well as old, religious as well as atheists, intellectuals and the uneducated alike.
Nobody is immune, although members of a particular political, religious, ethnic group or minority are at higher risk of being targets of government-endorsed violence. Frequent victims include politicians, union leaders, journalists, health professionals, human rights defenders, people in detention or prison, members of ethnic minorities, and student leaders.
Another large group of victims are poor people. Poverty makes people vulnerable to abuses and leaves them without the ways and means of defending their rights.
Not all forms of torture are bad
Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person to obtain information, punish, intimidate or coerce is never justified. There is no such thing as one method being less harmful than the other.
All forms of torture are horrific violations of human rights – including beating, electric shocks, stretching, submersion, suffocation, burns, rape and sexual assault, isolation, threats, humiliation, mock executions, mock amputations, and witnessing the torture of others.
The consequences of torture — any torture — reach far beyond immediate pain and can leave long-term scars on the victims.
Girls and boys. They go by no name, but their faces are marked by scars from bayonets, whips or knives. Some escaped hatred and indifferent smugglers, others survived shipwrecks and overcame barbed regulations protecting the borders.
(All photos are kindly provided by Pierre Duterte)
In his latest photo book, Le Phototherapeute, French author and medical doctor, Pierre Duterte paints a portrait of young victims of torture through his conversations with one of them, a patient known as “Junior”.
Like Junior, the children have escaped countries riddled with war and conflict. Safe in France, they no longer fear for their lives, but being alone in a strange country, they are met by a new threat: the loss of identity. Confronted with a new language and a new culture, they are lonely souls with no family nor friends to turn to.
As Duterte writes, battling traumatic memories that have since turned into nightmares, they risk becoming the forgotten children in a society that believes it has met its duties by giving them a place to stay and food to eat.
Duterte has worked with torture victims for more than 20 years and throughout his career, he has treated thousands of clients. In 2007, he released a book about his experiences as a therapist working with torture victims.
In Le Phototherapeute, Duterte, who is also a photographer, uses photos of nameless children to illustrate the complexities of his patients. As to reiterate that Junior could have been any of the young victims of torture he has met, the book has no photos of Junior.
Perhaps frustrated with the way that institutions have failed to treat these children, Duterte points to the trauma and horror that young victims of torture struggle with, before and after their escape. With his patients in mind, he describes the unexpected effects of placing the young shattered souls in front of a mirror. Looking at themselves, some of them are unable to recognise their own reflection.
Le Phototherapeute gives the reader an insight into the troubled life of young torture survivors and what it takes to restore both their physical and mental health. It is a compelling read that also serves as a reminder to us that these children have a very lengthy rehabilitation process ahead of them and that they need all the support they can get. If we have any hopes of them recognising themselves in the mirror we need to start by helping them rebuild their identity and escape their nightmares.
To find out more about Le Phototherapeute, click here.
“There was a call for help in a house which had been randomly shelled at Mujama’a St, East Gaza City. It was nearly 01:00 on the last day of Ramadan. The house was in complete chaos when the team arrived. There was dense smoke everywhere and a very bad smell, which hardly allowed them to breathe. I got the stretcher and the flashlight and entered the building, where I immediately saw a badly injured woman under the staircase. I took her to the ambulance and went back to the house. We managed to fit 3-6 people into the second ambulance….
“What shocked me most about this incident was that I forgot the flashlight in the house and my colleague asked me to go back and get it, since we would need it later for other evacuations. When I went back, I heard the feeble cry of a small baby, which I hadn’t noticed before. I looked around but couldn’t see anyone. Then I felt that the voice was coming from under a heap of rubble in flames. I searched in the rubble, though I felt my hands getting burnt, and finally I found a baby around one month old. I took her and ran back to the ambulance, but before I arrived she stopped breathing. I performed cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on her, and she came back to life.
“I was shocked by the incident, because she could have been one of my children, and I had almost left her behind in the fire to a certain death. I still thank God that I forgot the flashlight, so I was forced to go back to the house and could find her! I found a picture of her in the hospital on the internet, and I saved it, because it is a great encouragement for me. Now I want to look for her and see her grow, to tell her how proud I am that she is alive.”
The author of this story is Yousef Al Kahlout, a PRCS paramedic, who was part of the emergency response to Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip last summer.
Although accounts vary, most estimates put the number of residents of Gaza killed in the 50-day armed conflict at more than 2,000, of whom at least 70% were civilians. Additionally, more than 11,000 were wounded and over 100,000 made homeless because of the attacks.
The tale of Yousef and the baby he saved is one of hope. However, buried in the rubble in Gaza are many other stories of the short but devastating conflict.
Eight independent medical experts travelled to Gaza to uncover these stories. In a new fact-finding report, commissioned by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, they detail the types, causes and patterns of injuries based on interviews with victims.
The report, which is now available, provides a unique insight into the devastating impact war had on the civilians and communities in Palestine, and, at least partly, brings to light some of the stories the conflict nearly erased.
To read the full report, click here.